Our first crack at best engineering movie came back in July, with Chuck Murray's story, which is here and which you should go check out. My pick then -- and I'll stick with it, is 1993's Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas as a sad-sack laid-off defense worker who goes postal.
Excellent choice, Alex. That was a great movie, definitely underrated. I'm going with one of Chuck's picks from back in July - 2008's Flash of Genius, a true story about a man named Robert Kearns (played by Greg Kinnear) who invented the intermittent windshield wiper. He wages a legal war on Detroit automakers after they implement the wipers on their cars, but don't give Kearns credit for the invention. Like Michael Douglas in Falling Down, Kearns basically loses everything in his quest for credit/compensation for the design.
Funny you should mention "Flash of Genius," Jenn. Like many a great, lone inventor (superhet and FM inventor Edwin Howard Armstrong comes to mind) intermittent windshield wiper inventor Robert Kearns basically lost every (his family, for one) in his quest to get credit for his invention. I wrote a blog post about this four years ago, under the headline, "How Inventors Always Get Screwed."
Interesting post, Alex. It's a sad commentary on our times that so many people before Kearns, and I'm sure many more after, have to fight the big corporations to get the credit/compensation they deserve. While it's sad that these people are willing to lose everything for it, I have to admire their drive and passion for uncovering the truth and corruption.
The canonical case of the inventor who's been screwed is the most important yet least recognized inventor of the Radio era. That would be Edwin Howard Armstrong, who inarguably was responsible for more, and more significant, inventors than any of his peers. He did the regenerative receiver, superheterodyne, super regenerative, and FM. He had a love-hate relationship with famed RCA head David Sarnoff, who, though he helped Armstrong many times, also screwed him out of money and credit. Though Armstrong was eventually vindicated by the courts, it was after he committed suicide. See a short bio here. I commend readers to a great, out of print biography, entitled "Man of High Fidelity." If you search enough, you can find a free pdf ebook version
Alex: I looked at your story for Information Week. Good stuff. Two more great stories on that topic are about the late inventor Jerome Lemelson. One -- "Land of Wizards" -- was written by Tom Wolfe for Popular Mechanics in 1986. It is not on line, as far as I know. Another, titled "Lone Wolf of the Sierras," was written by our own Larry Maloney of Design News in 1995. Unfortunately, that ten-page article was written prior to our web presence, and the first paragraph is all that remains on our web site.
These are interesting definitions of an engineering movie. I never would have thought of Falling Down as one, although it's one of my all-time favorite movies (especially after living in LA). I think of it more as social commentary and assumed the fact that the main character is an engineer is due more to Hollywood's idea of a normal nebbish type Everyman. I think the title of this article should be "What's Your Pick for Best STEM Movie?" Anyway, I agree with Jenn, Flash of Genius is probably my pick.
I disagree with listing "Falling Down" as an engineering movie. The fact that Michael Douglas's character was an engineer is only relevant when used to describe his disillusionment with the world and how his character has been handling (or not) his stress level. It is easy to imagine him in the role when compared to a Hollywood envisioned engineer. My picks are movies that show some insight into the personal and professional work worlds of engineers. One is a slightly sophomoric "Real Genius" starring Val Kilmer as a college student used by his professor to work on a high powered laser system and the second is Christopher Walken in "Brainstorm". Both these movies show some of the politics and personal sacrifices engineers make to follow their dreams.
A lot of the science fiction movies from the 50s and 60s were based on projecting existing science and engineering into the future. Even Star Trek based many of its episodes on engineering and science. By the 70s and 80s, it seems that most science fiction focused more on projecting social trends into the future, which took the science out of science fiction.
David Cox is indeed correct that the Michael Douglas character in "Falling Down," which I picked as one of my favorite engineering movies, could in fact have been tagged as a member of any other profession or job. There was no "engineering" in the movie, except the scene where, if I remember correctly, he went to his childhood bedroom, and there were some equations scribbled on a pad. But the reason I put it in the engineering-movie category is I found it notable that a filmmaker would go out of his way to call a character an engineer. Usually movies avoid engineers. And it did kind of capture the boom-and-bust cycle of the defense engineer work lifestyle. I guess that no longer exists so much, but it did when I started out. I also think Douglas's character captured something of the engineer mindset, even though there was definitely stereotyping/overdoing it for effect (like the pocket protector he wore).
Based on your recommendation, Jon, I will watch Azorian. In the meantime, my favorite is still October Sky, which can only loosely be categorized as an engineering movie. It's about a high school student in the 1950s who is inspired by Sputnik and dreams of becoming a rocket engineer (it was based on the book "Rocket Boys"). Every time I see I can't help but think of the stories about the tired NASA engineers involved in the moon landing effort who, during their 16-hour days, would walk outside and look at the moon for inspiration. I like October Sky because it's one of the few movies that portrays a young, wannabe scientist as a normal person.
I liked "October Sky," too. The book gave readers many more details in particular about Homer's teacher; the Laura Dern character in the movie. Homer's family life didn't get much attention in the movie, either. To anyone who wants to watch the movie I recommend you read the book first.
I agree that October Sky was a wonderful movie about catching fire with science. Tucker -- A Man and His Dream was also a good story about a small company with innovative technology going up against a large industry.
October sky was good, but by far, the most creative engineering movie was "The Smurfs." Little blue men creating adorable little cottages and devices with a minimum of modern instruments was truly amazing and inspiring. Nothing else comes close!
OK guys you are just mentioning some others to be different. Apollo 13 is flat out hands down the best, on several levels. First: It shows the foibles of all the lowest bidder problems. The CO2 scrubbers round in the comand module square in the LEM. Then the movies show the best of AMERICAN ENGINEERING SPRIT, we simply won't let these guys be lost. Finally the thinking on their feet of the actual astronauts, and the fact that they actually had to fly the thing! Spam in a can my a$$. We need goals like this again.
I love several of the lines in the movie, but the best is when Neil Armstrong is at the Lovells house trying to console his mother, and She says, " Don't worry son, if they could get a washing machine to fly my boy could land it!" The men AND the women in those days had real guts!
Falling down doesn't even rate consideration. The guy could have run a cement mixer.
I also love Flight of the Phoenix because they actually built the plane/monster that flew for a few moments at the end. It cost us a great pilot as Paul Mantz crashed the plane when flying it for a second "take" for the cameras.
I recently became aware that there are two versions of Flight of the Phoenix. Apparently, when it's referred to, most people are talking about the 2004 remake starring Dennis Quaid. I only learned of that one when talking to someone about the version I'd seen, which is the 1965 B&W original with Jimmy Stewart. He's a little bit not right for the character he plays, because he doesn't come across as an aviator type. Yet he gives a strong performance, which rests of the intensity of his character's drive to find a solution to the situation. And of course that's at the core of an engineering problem. My favorite is near the end, the argument between the Stewart chjaracter and the (model) airplane designer character played by Hardy Kruger, where the latter tries to stop the former from testing whether the plane will start by using up the one starter charge they have. So of course in an engineering sense, the Stewart character is completely in the wrong here and the (model) airplane designer is correct. And the hanging onto the wing stuff wouldn't really work in real life, I don't think. (In WWII movies, there are scenes which make a point of showing wing-hangers falling to the ground as the plane takes off.)
As long as we're discussing Jimmy Stewart engineering movies, it's worth it to recall, "No Highway in the Sky." The character and plotline might be a bit over the top, but as a portrayal of corporate hierarchy and its effect on engineers, it's worth seeing.
Thanks for the Flight of the Phoenix reference, Alex. I'd forgotten about that as an engineering movie, but I agree, the character is a good example of the engineer mentality. I've seen both versions, and the argument at the end is archetypal. I don't know how Hollywood managed to do such a relatively decent job on an engineering-reated subject, when so often their depictions of scientists and engineers are cartoonish.
Sorry Alex, but I must disagree with your comment "He's a little bit not right for the character he plays, because he doesn't come across as an aviator type." Jimmy Stewart did play Charles Linbergh in 'Spirit of St. Louis'. Not to mention that during WWII he was a decorated aviator for his missions over Germany. Raised to the rank of Brigadier General.
Though I do agree with your assesment that people on the wings would be almost impossible, wight distribution and all. I think that George Kennedy on one wing and the lil monkey on the other would prove this point...hmm?
Apollo 13 is a good one I agree but I have to throw in Armageddon. I know it's a little far fetched and not really plausible but who really wants to put the fate of the world in a man who got a C- in Astrophysics.
jmiller: Armageddon is another of my guilty pleasures. I think it's hilarious that the NASA scientists could land a spaceship on a speeding asteroid but couldn't figure out how to put a drill together.
I usually don't classify movies about flying or aerospace in the engineering bucket, cause they're a genre unto themselves. (Plus, once you hit space, you start to get heavily into sci-fi.) That said, if we're talking aerospace, far and away my favority is "The Right Stuff." That's not because of the story -- the whole Chuck Yaeger breaking the sound barrier is well known -- or the acting (good though it is, particularly Ed Harris and Sam Shepard. Rather, it's the cinematography. The way it's shot is beautiful. All that blue sky; it has a very wide open feel and you get that whole flying/space vibe the whole movie because of that. Cinematographer was Caleb Deschanel.
I agree, The Right Stuff was virtually poetic in it's cinematography. But for engineering appeal, I like it more down to earth and personal, the little guy doing more with less. "World's Fastest Indian" was great in that respect and a great story to boot.
Rob: Everyone has their favorite engineering movies, but I agree with you about Apollo 13. That movie is one of the rare few that actually IS about engineering. And it shows the engineers as the heroes.
You're right, Chuck. The whole point of that movie was the engineering problem and solution. What I found fascinating about Apollo 13 was the bubble gum and scotch tape aspects to the original engineering as well as the solution. By today's standards, the early spacecrafts were made out of household items.
Rob: What's equally amazing about the 1960s space missions was the incredible lack of computing power. In retrospect, it's amazing to think that the engineering teams back then would have been ecstatic to have 286-level computing capability on board.
Yes that is amazing. I would assume there was mainframe help in the Houston facility. Technology has advanced incredibly since the 1960s, Even so, our most impressive technological feat -- getting to the moon -- occurred with technology that looks relatively primitive now.
Charles – you just brought back an old treasured memory. I got up at the crack of dawn and paid $75.00 at the first Saturday sidewalk sale in Dallas (when it was still under the bridge) for a 286 motherboard when they first came out – a fortune to a poor student like me at the time. Those were the good old days when not everything was integrated on one board and we would build our own computers and adding the serial and parallel ports we wanted and if the video card was blown we just replaced the card and not the board...it was always important to see how many slots were available for adding cool stuff. Windows were still just to look through back then...took me years to get over DOS – hard to get over your first love ;)
Yes, smart engineering rather than just smart computers. In a power point earlier this week, I saw a stat that claimed the average smart phone is now equal in computing power to NASA's Apollo computer.
Yes, Elon Musk's SpaceX story would be a good idea for a biography, Rob. Which reminds me, I'm told that the Astronaut Farmer was supposed to be a pretty good engineering movie. (I haven't seen it, though.)
Thanks for the link, Chuck. I'll have to check out the movie. I didn't realize Tesla's leader looked so young. He picked a great name for his car company. There's a world of engineers out there who believe Tesla's ideas were more significant than Edison's.
Well, I wasn't going to mention it but now that I see Armageddon in the mix, I loved Space Cowboys. A great cast, Clint Eastwood plays a retired engineer that is the only one who can repair an archaic computer onboard a Soviet satellite (hey, what is American technology doing onboard a Soviet satellite – the plot thickens...) along with Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner, all retired test pilots that train to go on the shuttle as part of a deal Clint makes with his old nemesis at NASA. A comedy drama with a few sub plots that add interest, it may not get very technical but it is an enjoyable watch.
Sounds like a good documentary. That is good for exisiting Engineers, but we need movies that will make real engineering a thing kids want to do. I like "October Sky" too (by the way, the book is called "Rocket Boys", they are anagrams), but it was more about perserverance and dreams than engineering. It is a great representation of what scientists and engineers are really like, and a great story. I think a lot of people who see the movie will admire Homer (and he deserves it, it is a true story), but they won't want to be Homer.
What we need is a story of an Engineer taking on a problem that we can all identify with, like a disease or other common threat to human life. Without getting too technical, show his ideas, his inspirations, and frustrations. The process he goes through at a level that most people can understand (it is okay if there are a few things they can't). And the most important part, his eventual win and how much it means.
If we can communicate that Engineering is about overcoming technical obstacles to win great victories, that will inspire people. Even those who feel it is beyond them will admire the people who are doing these things and want to support them.
Know any movies like that?
BTW I don't mean that there should not be technical details in the movie. There should be, and they should be accurate. However, the audience has to be able to follow what is going on. The details have to be presented in a way that everybody can understand them.
Sorry about being late to the party. My favorite Engineering Movie would be "From the Earth to the Moon" which was an HBO mini-series about the Apollo program. Several of the episodes demonstrate the trade-offs involved in engineering especially the ones on the Lunar Lander and the choice of the near earth rendezvous approach. It has some more "dramatic" episodes but, as a whole I found it very entertaining and educational.
Some good ones brought up. worthy mention- though over-simplisitc goes to "The Arrow"; "The Dambusters" had some good background onn the early parts of the story. Goodyear released a great fifty minute film on airships, nowadays re titled "The Zeppelin" with a new and much poorer commentary. "Ocotber Sky" and "The world's fastest Indian" are probably the ones to beat, but relating to the latter's subject, "Bluebirds" should get an honourable mention. I hope to see a film from "Raising the Kursk", since that's the best book I've seen covering an engineering project of manageable proportions.
Thanks Jon, I will definitely watch Azorian being an engineer i am too much into engineering movies no doubt flight of Pheonix and No Highway In The Sky are one of the best engineering movies. But i would like to share that BRIDGE ON RIVER KWAI is also an excellent engineering movie for civil engineers it shows how the British prisonors during world war 2 were ordered to construct a bridge in order to acomodate a railway under the supervision of Nicholson.
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